“N—s was too smart fo’ white folks to git ketched. White folks was sharp too, but not sharp enough to git by ole Nat. Nat? I don’t know who he was. Ole folks used to say it all de time. De meaning’ I git is dat de n—s could always out-smart de white folks. What you git fum it?” —Cornelia Carney, b. 1838[i]
When asked to recall her life as an enslaved woman in Williamsburg, Virginia, Cornelia Carney enthusiastically remembered her handsome father, the violence their owner visited upon him, and his ultimate life as an outlier: forever truant, just a step or two ahead of their abusive master. His wit and savvy she expressed in a common folk saying: white folks were “not sharp enough to get by ole Nat.” And though it was her father and his resistance to enslavement that she held most dear, this expression that “ole folks used to say” linked the resistance she witnessed and admired to America’s most famous slave rebellion, the Southampton Rebellion of 1831 or Nat Turner’s Rebellion.
Folk hero, rebellion leader, slayer of slave owners, Nat Turner remained in the mouths of Black Virginians for generations. Carney was born seven years after the rebellion took place. The “ole folks” who raised her would have lived through the terror of white hysteria after the dust settled in Southampton County and near sixty whites lay dead. The rebellion lasted less than 48 hours on August 22 and 23, 1831. Virginians, white and Black, would not soon forget how rebels traveled from farm to farm murdering every white man, woman, and child they encountered. Nat Turner’s name would have conjured memories of their owners’ violence and anxiety, as Nat Turner remained missing for months after Southampton’s militia prevailed and trials of accused rebels began. But when Carney gave her interview a century after those violent days, Black Virginians were still facing awful times. A reminder that survival, resistance, and perseverance were possible must not have escaped her. Her father’s survival and Nat Turner’s successful rebellion remained married through a folk expression that an interviewer from the government would put in a book somewhere. Nat Turner, it seems, was still truant and lying out in the minds of Black Virginians.
Before attending an advance screening of Nate Parker’s latest offering, The Birth of a Nation, which opens nationwide this weekend, I had hoped that the film would fit into the same Black historical imaginary as Cornelia Carney’s memories. As a historian I have long had a love-hate relationship with cinema. On the one hand I understand that truly inspired creative work can engage with the past in ways that I as a historian cannot. On the other I bristle when inaccuracy, even in costuming and material culture, flickers across the screen, knowing that a creative narrative can so easily become the historical narrative that the public accepts. But when The Birth of a Nation received early critical attention and a landmark distribution deal after screening at the Sundance Film Festival, I became hopeful, not for a movie with documentary-like accuracy, but for a film that portrayed enslaved people in rebellion using dramatic license to imagine what documents do not reveal.
The Birth of a Nation is not an excerptable, classroom-ready movie. A screening of Parker’s film is not the place to learn about antebellum Southampton County or the lives of the enslaved and free African Americans who lived and labored there. It is also not the place to learn about the slave rebellion produced by this community in late August 1831. Parker’s film bears only a fleeting resemblance to the well-documented historical event that shocked the Old Dominion. The narrative Parker offers instead is one in which he and his cowriter very loosely borrow from some of the documents associated with the Southampton Rebellion to shape Nat Turner into a hero for a new generation. Parker’s character joins a long line of Nat Turners shaped by writers, artists, activists, and lay people into relevant role models for their times. Nat Turner, the archetype, has been a foot soldier for abolition, a Race Man, a Black Power inspiration, and, now, as Parker has stated in interviews, a hero for the contemporary moment.
The character named Nat Turner in Parker’s movie is a man marked for greatness from birth. Much like the historical Turner, the character Turner draws strength from his mother and grandmother who affirm his humanity even as his owners reduce him daily to a chattel. But the world that shapes Parker’s character is not a historically accurate recreation of 1800s Southampton County, Virginia. Instead, it is the imaginary “every South” that often provides a backdrop for narratives set in the “slavery times” of the public imagination. There are no small or mid-sized farms, only grand two-story plantation houses, each with large slave quarters populated by human property holdings far greater than those of the farmers who lived in the corner of Southampton County that the historical Turner called home.
In the movie’s Southampton there are no laws prohibiting slaveholders from teaching their slaves to read. Parker’s Turner becomes the pet of his white mistress who eagerly shares the Bible with him. In the world of the movie it is plausible that local whites would eagerly pay for a literate slave to deliver sermons their own disobedient human property. Most of the plot revolves around an ahistorical preaching tour organized by the character’s owner that both lines his owner’s pockets and exposes the adult preacher Turner to a wide array of abuses under slavery. The tour serves as a plot device to introduce the character Turner and the movie audience to the violence and brutality of slavery. Witnessing deprivation, neglect, and torture on neighboring plantations radicalizes Parker’s Turner.
Black women and children do not factor into the agricultural labor of the grand plantations that dot Parker’s fictional Southampton. Unlike their historical counterparts who labored primarily in Southampton’s fields, they populate only domestic scenes in the movie. The female members of the character Turner’s family do play a supporting role in the character’s life that accurately reflects the historical Turner’s writings. Parker takes great care to craft an intimate life for his character. He spends time portraying Turner’s marriage and the young family that historians know the historical Turner had but about whom we have little information. It is the abuse of Turner’s wife and interruption of their domestic bliss that serves as a final catalyst for Parker’s version of the rebellion. Ultimately it is the character Turner’s singular genius, his personal suffering, and his enduring spiritual call to greatness that make possible the Southampton Rebellion which serves as the movie’s climax.
The rebellion occupies a fraction of the movie’s run time. Rather than recounting the well-documented historical path that the rebels took through their neighborhood, Parker’s version rushes through a few murder scenes and then hurls Turner and an ever-expanding group of enslaved men into a final confrontation with militia in Jerusalem, Southampton’s county seat. This final battle scene serves a dramatic purpose and gives the fictional rebellion a much more definitive end than the historical rebellion had. Instead of the lengthy trials and ambiguity that historical Southampton residents waded through after the rebellion, the audience gets a hero’s death scene with musical scoring and dramatic cinematography to match.
It is easy to list the details of the historical Southampton Rebellion that Parker did not accurately portray, and there are many such details. But what deserves more critical attention is Parker’s insistence on creating an extraordinary black male hero. By crafting of a narrative that depicts a hero made in his own image, Parker fails to explore two of the most compelling features of the historical Southampton Rebellion: the ordinariness of slavery’s evil and the vast resistive network of “heroes” needed to pull off a violent slave revolt. Slavery was awful. It was not only awful on some plantations or in some households or at the hands of a few purely evil masters. It was awful in even the most everyday moments in an enslaved man, woman, or child’s life. All of the enslaved people who survived under the slave regime did so because they resisted slavery every day. That is why Cornelia Carney saw Nat Turner in her father and her father in Nat Turner. In the folk tradition where “Ole Nat” survived, Nat Turner was not one slave but every slave.
What was most threatening to whites in 1831 was not that one rebellious slave lurked in their midst, but that every enslaved person in every community had good reason to foment rebellion. Moreover, most had the access and means to murder their masters before any militia could arrive to reinstate order. To assuage these fears and anxieties, white officials in Southampton County heavy-handedly emphasized Nat Turner’s importance as a leader. They did their best to shift public fear away from the possibility of mass insurrection and towards one “deranged” slave who managed to seduce otherwise compliant dutiful slaves into violent rebellion. They did so to reestablish their place of authority in the county. They did so while also trying and punishing nearly fifty enslaved people because of their involvement in the rebellion. Among those executed or sold away from the county were men, boys, and one woman. We know what white officials and enslaved people knew in 1831: Nat Turner did not and could not have acted alone.
Ironically Parker’s hero-making plays into the hands of those who sought to mitigate the true impact of the Southampton Rebellion. Yes, Nat Turner, his religiosity, and his call to rebellion are essential to the story. But many enslaved people who both actively and passively participated in the rebellion populate the documents and sources that remain, waiting for historians and artists alike.
The historical Southampton Rebellion has much to teach contemporary students about resistance. Nat Turner fomented rebellion in the context of community. The male slave rebels who joined him could not have succeeded without the help of longstanding support networks embedded in community life. Black women, free and enslaved, were not solely the victims of brutality that inspired men to resist, as portrayed in the film. They were also active participants in and witnesses to an event that proved catastrophic for their community just as they participated in the everyday resistance of their communities. If they were not the infantry and cavalry of the rebellion, women were certainly active in its supply line and intelligence network. Of course, many in Southampton’s enslaved population did not participate at all, and that too is instructive, even if it doesn’t make for a dramatic, streamlined plot. The Southampton Rebellion is not a black vs. white story. It is the story of a community in crisis. Some folks chose sides and others did their best to weather the storm: resistance and survival were always of a piece.
Parker’s movie is important. Its independent roots and blockbuster distribution deal are significant in an industry that still grapples with racism. It also draws the public’s attention to a history that has no white saviors or triumphant endings. The character Turner is not long suffering; he springs into violent action as soon as he becomes aware of slavery’s brutality and validates his claim to humanity and freedom, just as the historical Turner did, through a radicalized Christianity. But the license that Parker took in an effort to craft his heroic version of Turner ultimately strips away too much valuable context. While it is true that the truth can get in the way of a good story, Parker’s story gets in the way of a good truth: the people of Southampton were not extras. They were and remain at the heart of the Southampton Rebellion’s history.
Recommended Texts for Teaching and Understanding the Southampton Rebellion:
Many of us will have students who want to know more about Nat Turner and the Southampton Rebellion. This short list is meant to provide a quick snapshot of the work available on the rebellion that I have used in the classroom and not an exhaustive bibliography.
- Kyle Baker, Nat Turner (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2008). This graphic novel works well in the classroom and draws its text directly from Nat Turner’s confessions. The artist’s work with the historical text gives students quite a bit to engage. The visual nature of the genre also helps students, both advanced and introductory, to wade through the 19th century language of the original text.
- Patrick H. Breen, The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt, 1 edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016). The most current work on the Southampton Rebellion, Breen’s book provides both a clear narrative of the revolt and a study of the trials post-rebellion.
- Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, 1st PAPERBACK edition (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004). Camp’s landmark work explores the ways that enslaved women were integral to their community’s resistance. Reading her work along side any of the sources here would make for great classroom discussion about the gendered dynamics of American slave rebellion.
- Sylviane A. Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (New York: NYU Press, 2014). This book takes a look at another significant form of resistance: truancy. Diouf’s excellent study is helpful when trying to understand the culture of resistance among antebellum slaves. It also features the Dismal Swamp, due east of Southampton County, and its famous maroon community that many feared would rise up in rebellion.
- Kenneth S. Greenberg, ed., Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory, 1 edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). This collection of essays includes some of the most recent work on the Southampton Rebellion in article length essays. It features fresh takes on the rebellion’s meaning and the rebellion’s events and even engages with William Styron’s novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner.
- Henry Irving Tragle, The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material, Including the Full Text of The Confessions of Nat Turner (New York: Vintage Books, 1973). This collection of source material compiles most of the relevant sources on the Southampton Rebellion. Its easy to use transcriptions translate well in the classroom and can work as an excellent counterpart to Turner’s confessions.
- Nat Turner and Kenneth S. Greenberg, The Confessions of Nat Turner: And Related Documents, First Edition edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996). This edition of Nat Turner’s confessions is an excellent way to engage primary material while providing students with context quickly. It includes trial excerpts, newspaper coverage, correspondence as well as the full text of Nat Turner’s jail cell confessions.
- http://www.natturnerproject.org/ This digital humanities project directed by Sarah N. Roth at Widener University, is also an excellent resource for students and instructors. It includes primary source material and is very user friendly.
[i] Charles L. Perdue and Thomas E. Barden, Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (University of Virginia Press, 1976), 67.